Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish State” or, in a different formulation, as the “nation state of the Jewish people.” He says that this recognition is “the real key for peace," a “minimal requirement” and an “essential condition” without which there can be no agreement.
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Love it or loathe it, one cannot understate the public relations genius behind this stipulation. It has captured the imaginations of Israelis, Jews and many other Israel-supporting people around the world. Secretary of State John Kerry is said to be pressing Arab states to accept it. A decade ago it didn’t exist and, presto, out of the blue, it is the now the lynchpin of the process, it's sine qua non, the make or break issue.
I would be more than happy if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas somehow succeeded in overcoming Palestinian objections and acceded to Netanyahu’s demand. Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people would remove a serious obstacle to peace talks and may convince Israelis that Palestinian rejectionism has turned a historic corner. Such a move would also put immense pressure on Israel to be far more forthcoming in the concessions that it needs to make to reach a deal.
But here’s the thing: I don’t know what Netanyahu’s demand is doing for Abbas, but it is making me increasingly uneasy. The more I think of the demand to recognize Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people," whatever that is, the less I like it. In my eyes, Muslims and Christians who were born in Israel and live there are Israelis; Jews who live in Tulsa or Tashkent are not. Jews around the world may worship Israel but that does not make it theirs.
My position is this: “The name Israel differentiates between the sovereign Jewish people in its homeland, called by the name of Israel, and the Jewish people in the world, in all the generations and in all the land, who are called the “Jewish people” or the “people of Israel." That’s what David Ben-Gurion wrote to Brandeis historian and philosopher Simon Rawidowicz in 1954.
Rawidowicz – a towering Jewish intellectual whose memory has faded to the extent that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry in English to his name – was a champion of the “equal status” of Israel and Diaspora Jewry, which he described as “Jerusalem and Babylon”. He objected to the name Israel that Ben-Gurion had chosen for the state because it excluded Diaspora Jews, and, in essence, relegated them to a second-tier status.
While denying charges of “negation of the Diaspora," as it was known then, Ben-Gurion, in effect, agreed with Rawidowicz: Diaspora Jews can worship Israel and can very well call themselves “the people of Israel” if they wish, but they are not Israelis, and Israel is not their country unless and until they choose to live there.
Likud leaders from Menachem Begin to Netanyahu have been systematically erasing Ben-Gurion’s fine line. As columnist Doron Rosenblum meticulously recorded over the years in Haaretz, the Likud and the religious right have steadily downgraded secular “Israeliness” as inherently alien and leftist and fostered traditional “Jewishness” for ideological, political and cultural reasons in its stead. When the Likud first came to power in 1977, most Jewish Israelis defined themselves as being Israelis before being Jews, but a majority now claims the opposite.
And if Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people as a whole, then the prime minister, ipso facto, is the prime minister of Jews wherever they may be. That’s why Netanyahu can tell the U.S. Congress “I speak on behalf of the Jewish people,” That’s how he can openly call on U.S. Jews to “stand up and be counted” in his campaign against U.S. policies on Iran. That’s why he made no effort to correct David Gregory who anointed him “Leader of the Jewish people” on Meet the Press last year.
The right wing, in fact, would like to adopt the Jewish people wholesale, wherever they are, and to thus prop up the Jewish majority in the “Greater Land of Israel” by remote control or even, potentially, by giving Diaspora Jews the vote. And by demanding that hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs be “transferred” to another sovereignty and another citizenship, Netanyahu’s deputy and Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is only confirming the claims of many Palestinians: that by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas would be giving his blessing to those, like Lieberman, who view the citizenship of Israeli Arabs as second rate and expendable.
Don’t get me wrong: As long as there is a Jewish majority in Israel, I have no problem with its Jewish character or with its decision to grant automatic citizenship to any Jew who wishes to make it their home. Ancient ties, millennia of devotion and 20th century horrors justify such a position.
If Netanyahu had demanded that Abbas recognize the historic links between Israel and the Jewish people or its centrality in Israeli life, I would be backing him all the way. But Netanyahu has not only injected Abbas into the whole “Who is a Jew” conundrum, he wants him to accept that a Jew who lives in Buenos Aires has a weightier connection to Israel than the Palestinian family that has lived in Shfaram or in Tirah or in Taybe for hundreds of years.
That may be a reasonable position for Jewish uber-patriots, but it’s a bridge too far for me.
I have never accepted the contention that in order to be a Zionist one has to live in Israel. One can be a Zionist and support Israel even if one lives in Timbuktu. But one cannot live in Timbuktu and claim Israel as one’s own. Abbas may choose to accept Netanyahu’s demand, but as far as I am concerned, Israel is an Israeli state, and it is the nation state of Jews who choose to live in it. Period.